December 27, 2004

December 27, 2004 | Commentary on Political Thought

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of December 27

What's one of the biggest hurdles the Department of Homeland Security faces? Bureaucracy.

"The leaders of the Department of Homeland Security," the authors of the 9/11 Commission reported in their final report, "now appear before 88 committees and subcommittees of Congress." Jurisdiction for the department, the report noted, fell under no fewer than 412 of the 435 House members and all 100 senators. One expert witness told the panel, "This is perhaps the single largest obstacle impeding the department's successful development."

Indeed, from January to June 2004, Department officials testified before Congress a staggering 126 times. That's one-and-a-half testimonies every day during the legislative session. On top of that, on average, Department experts conduct a dozen briefings for lawmakers and their staff each day.

Some of the oversight Department representatives must accept from these committees is useful and necessary, but much is duplicative and needlessly time-consuming. All these committees, with multiple and sometimes conflicting priorities, exacerbate the challenge of building a comprehensive, focused national security regime.

When Congress reconvenes in January, House leaders will decide whether to consolidate this balkanized jurisdiction into one powerful new committee. If House leaders agree to create it, and assuming they grant it primary jurisdiction over security issues related to our borders, airports, transportation systems, bio-terrorism, ports, nuclear and chemical plants, the Internet, and first responders, this new entity would vault immediately to the top tier of powerful House committees. Move over, Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Energy and Commerce. There's a new kid on the block.

Not surprisingly, the chairmen of the committees that stand to lose the most legislative and oversight jurisdiction have mounted intense campaigns to preserve their fiefdoms, but none so aggressively and openly as the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Alaska Republican Don Young.

Writing in the Washington Times, Chairman Young made his case against the new committee, arguing that the member expertise and institutional knowledge required to legislate in this area "takes years and even decades to develop." The only committees with the "capacity" to do this, he argues, are the ones currently in place, including his own Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "It is incomprehensible to me," he concludes, why the House would choose to "throw this capacity away" and transfer all this authority to an "inexperienced and unproven" committee.

Separately, in a private letter to House leaders, the Transportation Construction Coalition, a consortium of 28 organizations that work together to advocate "strong federal investment in transportation infrastructure" weighed in on behalf of Young. This consortium includes a wide array of national organizations with extensive knowledge, not of matters related to homeland security, but to others areas of concern such as . . . well, concrete, asphalt, slurry, lime, stone, sand and gravel. Members include the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, the American Concrete Pavement Association, the Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute, the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, the Asphalt Emulsion Manufacturers Association, the International Slurry Surfacing Association, the National Lime Association, and the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association.

These organizations fear that a new committee will approve transportation security initiatives that will drain resources from the "overwhelming unmet transportation needs facing the nation" and that this committee would "impair both security and transportation initiatives." Translation: The organizations that launched a relentless campaign two years ago on behalf of a two-cent increase in the federal gas tax, and that subsequently convinced the House last year to approve a bloated $360-billion highway-funding bill, turn ashen at the prospect that Congress will one day place a higher value on homeland security needs than on their unquenchable thirst for yet more highways, bridges and tunnels.

Those of you who believe that securing the safety of Americans both at home and abroad is the first and, some would argue, only appropriate role for the federal government would do well to recall the extent of chairman Young's parochialism during a similar moment of truth. In July 2003, when his and 11 other House committees were considering their portions of the legislation that would lead to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, Young opposed efforts to make homeland security the Coast Guard's single most important mission. Instead, Congress Daily reported, "Young hopes to safeguard thousands of miles of Alaska coastline and his constituents by making search-and-rescue, fisheries protection and other core missions a priority over homeland security tasks." Young memorably told a reporter: "Rescuing somebody on the high seas is homeland security."

Former Majority Leader Dick Armey (R.-Tex.) succeeded in watering down Young's approach, but the law creating the new agency nevertheless stipulated that the Coast Guard remain a separate unit and barred the Secretary from diminishing--except in emergencies--the work force the Coast Guard devotes to search and rescue, fisheries protection, and environmental protection.

Most Americans would agree that protecting Americans from terrorists and other security threats is the most important mission facing Congress and the President. More important than anything and everything else on the agenda, including more roads, bridges and tunnels. More important, even, than protecting our fisheries.

Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events